Ken Liu on Writing and Translating Science Fiction
Ken Liu is a lawyer, programmer, science fiction translator, and author. In 2012, his short story "The Paper Menagerie" became the first work of fiction to win all three of the major science fiction awards: the Nebula, the Hugo, and the World Fantasy Award. As a translator, he’s brought some of China’s most provocative, pioneering science fiction into the English-speaking world, including Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem.
As a Chinese-American translator, Liu is embedded within both American and Chinese science fiction writing communities. His background offers a prismatic lens into speculative Chinese futures, contemporary Chinese writing, and the popular imagination of present-day China.
This interview was conducted by Jing Tsu, a professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures and Comparative Literature at Yale.
Let me start by asking about you: how did you come to write science fiction?
I didn't set out to write sci-fi. I still don't know if I'm writing sci-fi, actually. I’m happy if readers who enjoy science fiction want to call my work science fiction. I’m also happy if readers who enjoy science fiction refuse to consider my work science fiction—they can’t stop me from writing what I want.
Genre-wise, I don't really pay attention to labels. I simply like writing stories that literalize metaphors. I enjoy writing stories in which some metaphorical concept is made literally true, tangible, so that you can manipulate it, touch it, and play with it, as an actual thing. Make a mother’s love come alive in the form of paper animals; recast our debates about the meaning of writing and language into artifacts created by aliens. In that transformation a magic happens for both the reader and myself.
Where do you get your ideas?
We live in an amazing age when it's actually possible for the average person to access a great deal of cutting-edge scientific research for almost no cost at all. Reading scientific papers gives me lots of interesting ideas—going to the primary source is always more interesting than reading a newspaper account or an attempt at popularization. The words of the scientists themselves and the charts and graphs they produce to convey their ideas are so rich and replete with fascinating implications.
I’m also interested in insights from the history of science: our scientific institutions, dominant models, and incentive systems shape our inquiry. I like to probe into our contemporary preoccupations and biases and the limits of our knowledge.
What scientific fields do you find most inspiring?
I enjoy reading computer science papers and mathematics—these are areas I’m most knowledgeable about. Genetics and evolutionary biology are also areas of interest. I don't have what many people would consider a science background, but I did work for many years as a technologist and I was a computer scientist.
What did you do exactly?
I had a weird career. Right after college I went to work for Microsoft as a programmer. Then I joined a startup, again as a programmer. Then I went to law school, clerked for a federal judge, and became a practicing tax lawyer for seven years. Burned out by that lifestyle, I moved into consulting. I helped litigants in high-tech patent cases prepare expert reports and demonstratives. During that phase I would describe myself as an unofficial historian of technology because history is largely what patent litigation is about.
In patent litigation, the focus is almost always on the development of a technology and the history of where the ideas came from. Was there a “long-felt need” in the field? What other ideas were there? How do those ideas differ from yours? And that leads into investigating how technology actually evolves.
Popular accounts of lone inventors coming up with some groundbreaking idea out of nowhere are almost never the reality. People are inspired by one another, and the cross-pollination across fields, schools, companies, friendly or rivalrous, is rampant. At any moment there are dozens if not hundreds of teams all around the world trying to solve the same problem with different approaches. And which technology ultimately becomes the dominant solution for the problem is often the result of chance rather than technical merit. I ended up having a lot more appreciation for the role of chance in our technology development and a more humble view of innovation.
I find that science fiction writers in general have often taken very uncustomary paths. How did you get your first piece of fiction published?
It was just a lot of try, try, try again. I had been writing for a long time before I got published. I wrote all through high school and college—just for myself, to play with ideas. And sometime after college I said, you know, maybe I should try to take this more seriously and see if I can actually get a story published somewhere. So I worked with online critique groups, just trying to learn the craft.
What are online critique groups?
They're online forums in which writers at all different stages of their careers come together to offer advice and feedback on each other's manuscripts. There's a long tradition of this, especially in speculative fiction, science fiction, and fantasy, where writers are happy to help one another to improve together.
At some point, I started submitting stories for publication. At the time, most places still only accepted paper submissions. So I had to learn how to format the manuscript properly, get the stamps, and get the self-addressed self-posted envelopes included with the manuscript, and then wait a few months for a rejection letter. I did this for several years and accumulated a folder full of rejection slips. And finally, there was one anthology called the Phobos Science Fiction Anthology that accepted my very first story.
Since you are also a translator of science fiction, can you say a bit about how you got started translating?
Basically by accident. Translation was not something I had studied in any formal way and it wasn't an art that I was interested in. However, I made a lot of friends in China through reading their work—
Science fiction writers?
Some would call themselves that; some wouldn’t. I just loved their work—the narrative techniques were new; the ideas fresh; the voices sharp, poignant, and funny. I wished more American readers beside myself got to read them.
Were you reading them online or in print?
Both. At one point one of my friends, Chen Qiufan, had one of his stories, “The Fish of Lijiang,” translated by a professional translation company. He sent the draft to me and asked, “Do you mind taking a look and telling me what you think of the translation?" So I read it and said, “Well, it's accurate but it doesn't really have your voice. There's none of your wit, none of the joy of reading you in it. I don't know anything about translation, but if you're willing, I can see if I can make it better.” And Chen Qiufan said, “Sure, go for it.”
I started by trying to “fix” that translation, but very soon afterwards I realized it just wasn't going to work. I mean, anybody who has ever been a coder knows that there's nothing worse than trying to fix someone else's code instead of writing your own. So I said, I'll just throw away the translation. I'm going to do it from scratch and see if I can capture his voice in English.
In the end, that story was accepted by Clarkesworld, an online American fantasy and science fiction magazine. It was the first translation they ever bought, and it ended up winning a translation award. I got a lot of positive feedback. And I thought, this is kind of cool. I want to help my Chinese writer friends find an audience abroad.
In the speculative fiction community there is an ethos of service. It's a small community and we like doing things for each other—it’s how all fandoms work. I decided that translation would be my form of service to the community.
How did you come to translate The Three-Body Problem?
The story is too complicated for me to do it justice fully here. But, briefly, as Liu Cixin’s Three-Body trilogy was published, each book turned out to be more popular than the last. By 2010, it was by far the most popular work of science fiction in China, ever. I had read it and thought it was wonderful, but I didn't think about translating it because I was focused on my own writing.
Meanwhile, a state-owned enterprise called the China Education Publication Import Export Company (CEPIEC) got involved. They are a textbook publisher that focuses on bringing foreign textbooks into China. One of the executives read the Three-Body series and thought there was a chance for the book to become popular outside China. So he acquired the translation rights and then set about looking for translators.
At first he contacted Eric Abramson and Joel Martinsen, prominent translators who were working in China at the time. They recommended bringing me in. So we began working on it together, one person for each book—but, for a variety of reasons, Eric had to drop out, and I ended up doing both the first and third books. In the process I had to consult with Liu Cixin many times and we became friends.
Even after finishing the draft translation of the first book, there was the question of who would actually buy it. At WorldCon in Chicago, another writer, Emily Jiang, introduced my friends Chen Qiufan and Wang Meizi (a translator) to Liz Gorinsky, an editor at Tor Books, the New York-based science fiction and fantasy publisher. Chen and Wang told Liz that I was working on a translation of The Three-Body Problem. And that was how Tor found out about and eventually acquired the book.
I don't think any of us expected the book to become big. Historically, translations have not done well in the US. Usually they are only put out by a small publisher or an academic press. So it was really remarkable that, as soon as the book came out, there was interest from The Atlantic, the New Yorker, and a ton of other mainstream media outlets. Mark Zuckerberg was one of our earliest readers and promoted it to his book club on Facebook. Eventually we found out that President Obama was a fan.
It's been great to see the kind of acclaim and recognition that's been brought to Liu Cixin. Another thing about translating into English is that it opens up doors across the world. Editors and readers in Poland or Germany or Italy may not able to read Chinese but many of them can read English. So once you have an English translation, it sparks more translations into other languages. This is true of the other writers I've translated, like Chen Qiufan and Hao Jingfang. Many of them have now gotten collections and novels published all around the world. I've been very pleased to see that my original aim of bringing more readers to writers I admire has been successful.
What would it take for the Chinese language to become the language of global science fiction?
I think we have settled on English as the lingua franca of contemporary life and I don't see that changing anytime soon. It’s probably more productive for efforts to go into decolonizing English and making English a truly global language rather than trying to displace it.
Why do you think that China is such an interesting place to write science fiction right now?
I don't know that it actually is any more interesting than anywhere else. It's very common for Western observers to focus on the Chineseness of Chinese science fiction. But I've always been very resistant to the idea that Chineseness is a meaningful analytical category. The writers I know are as diverse and varied in their goals and means and interests as writers anywhere. Han Song for instance, is a very surreal kind of writer. He writes like Philip K. Dick. If you read him next to Liu Cixin, who’s more like Arthur C. Clarke, it would be hard to identify many useful commonalities even though they're both Chinese science fiction writers.
For every subgenre that you can identify in the West, be it cyberpunk or biopunk or social critique fiction, you can find some analogue in the Chinese science fiction community. I think many of the writers view themselves as participating in a global science fiction tradition rather than a national one.
A great deal of Chinese science fiction, of course, is grounded in contemporary Chinese society. The way so much “progress” has been compressed within a few decades does lead to acute problems that Chinese writers are more sensitized to than most American writers are. But what's happening in China is not unique to China. You see the same kinds of issues manifesting in South Africa, South Korea, Eastern Europe, and other places. Many of the problems that are often described as uniquely Chinese are not if you really probe into them.
Do people read Chinese science fiction expecting to learn about China? Because China is science fiction, almost? You seem to be working against that perception.
I think the idea of reading Chinese science fiction to learn about China is about as useful as reading Scandinavian crime fiction to learn about Scandinavia. You will learn something about China, of course, but I’m not convinced it’s anything you wouldn’t learn better with a good nonfiction book.
Overall, I resist the idea of reading fiction for instrumentalist or “educational” purposes. I hope people read Chinese science fiction for the same reasons they read any fiction: to be transported, to be delighted, to be taken away to live another life.
In the early twentieth century, during the late Qing dynasty, many Chinese writers published works of science fiction. Would you say that contemporary Chinese science fiction has more in common with Western science fiction than it does with late Qing Chinese science fiction?
Undoubtedly. I think the interest in late Qing dynasty science fiction is more of an academic phenomenon. Nobody even knew of the existence of these works until recently: they were only recovered in the past few decades, after all. And if you look at those late Qing dynasty stories, in fact, they themselves were participating in a global discourse, inspired by the first translations of people like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells into Chinese.
Intellectuals of the early Republican and late Qing dynasty era saw science fiction as a tool. Lu Xun specifically said that science fiction was a tool to dispel old superstitions and to revitalize the Chinese nation by teaching scientific habits of mind. In that sense, a lot of Chinese policy planners may have always had an idea of science fiction as a tool. But how much does it influence contemporary writers? I don't think a whole lot.
What would Chinese contemporary writers say, then, about the purpose of science fiction today, if it is no longer to save the nation? Liu Cixin has said on several occasions that he’s in it for the money.
Ha! All writers give multiple answers to that question. He's also said many times, “I'm a fan, I enjoy science fiction and thinking about these grand ideas. And I have a unique talent in describing these grand ideas in a way that feels viscerally real to people.”
Anyway, I don't know how many science fictions writers would attribute a specific purpose to their writing. Chinese writers probably have as many idiosyncratic reasons as writers anywhere for persisting in this rather strange endeavor. But I think very few of them would say, “I do it in order to educate the Chinese public and to save the Chinese nation.”
Or to help China's rise?
I think that hasn’t really been a thing for maybe a century now.
One aspect that does seem to distinguish contemporary science fiction in China from that of the West is that, partly because of the success of Liu Cixin's novel, there is a concerted effort by the state to actively foster Chinese science fiction. CEPIEC, the state-owned corporation you mentioned earlier, took part in that effort. It was founded in 1987 by the Ministry of Education and, among other things, oversees what the world reads from China.
Do you think writers think about that? Do they worry about it? Do they have to walk a fine line in trying to preserve their space of creativity as a sci-fi community, globally speaking, while at the same time staying in tune with the image of China that the government wants to project abroad?
The Chinese state is not monolithic. There are multiple levels of (often) conflicting authority motivated by different interests. CEPIEC is owned by the state, but honestly I do not see them having any interest other than making money. Like many state-owned enterprises in China, they are now responsible for their own profit. If they don't make a profit, they don't survive. So I think that's largely what's driving them—the same as Tor or Macmillan or any other publisher.
As far as city or provincial governments, I think a lot of them see science fiction as a way to draw investment or to boost the local economy. So for example in Sichuan, where the magazine Science Fiction World is based, there seems to be a lot of official support from the provincial government and the city government of Chengdu in terms of hosting science fiction conferences and conventions. From what I can see, the interest is largely commercial: they see the popularity of science fiction as a way to boost the local economy.
At a higher level, I do think there is some interest from some officials who recognize that, in terms of exporting Chinese culture, science fiction has been one of the few success stories. But the Chinese government is not very good at fostering “soft power” the way the US government is. The US government is very good at promoting US cultural influence abroad. When I go abroad to attend international writers’ festivals, the local US embassy almost always helps sponsor my ticket and tries to put in an appearance. They are good about promoting all forms of art that show America's creativity, the allure of the American way of life, and our cultural diversity.
In the case of China, officials, especially officials abroad, are above all concerned with not doing anything wrong. Yes, science fiction is popular today, their reasoning goes, but who knows what's going to happen tomorrow? I’ve heard from science fiction fans from other countries who suggested to their Chinese consulates to sponsor Chinese science fiction writers to go abroad and meet readers, since Chinese science fiction is one of the few Chinese cultural products that actually draws people. But the consulate officials didn’t seem to be interested.
To my eyes, the idea that there's a concerted effort by the Chinese government to promote science fiction abroad is largely an illusion. I think people either give too much credit to the Chinese government, or they mistakenly attribute fan-driven grassroots effort or commercial interest from profit-driven companies to conspiracy theories.
However, there is a huge amount of state censorship and control. That is much more influential than any kind of state promotion.
How does censorship impact science fiction writing in particular?
Like any other part of the cultural sphere, science fiction is under heavy scrutiny. Though, I should say, censorship in China is a complicated subject. A lot of what happens is self-censorship, rather than explicit official action. If you haven't actually lived inside a censored society, it may be hard to understand.
A lot of Western readers think censorship in China is about specific rules, like time travel not being allowed or whatnot. That's not how it works. Those kinds of explicit rules are easy to route around, and everybody knows it, so that’s not what the government depends on. Instead, the system works through hazy, ambiguous, ambivalent, fuzzy “guidelines.” Some “relevant organ” of government high up in the chain (and there are many with competing jurisdictions) would announce a set of guidelines about some area of “concern” or “prohibition,” and everyone scrambles to read the tea leaves and figure out what they really mean. If you interpret some of these guidelines literally, even a dictionary or “See Spot Run” would be prohibited. But how do you figure out what is really meant when there’s no transparency? The only way is to wait for enforcement and observe the results.
People want to avoid trouble, so as you go down the layers of government, to the provincial government, to the city government, to individual publishers, everyone tries to be cautious and the penumbra of what may be forbidden becomes larger and larger.
Often, viewed from the perspective of a reader or writer, the distinction between what is forbidden or not borders on the absurd and nonsensical. For instance, you can’t have any animals that acquire sentience via magic in your story if it’s set after 1949; you can’t publish a certain story unless you do a search-and-replace of “Beijing” with “Washington, DC”—even if everyone can tell the fictional city is actually just Beijing in disguise; you can’t make a science fiction movie unless you have a bona fide scientist on staff as a consultant—even if you’re trying to tell a space opera story and everyone agrees the “science” is implausible.
The real power of censorship comes from the uncertainties of enforcement. It’s what we call the “chilling effect.” It’s also the way the system is designed to work: to preserve maximum flexibility in the hands of the enforcer. This is an old bureaucratic trick known across the world and throughout history.
The courageous publisher or writer can often get away with things that, on their face, violate one prohibition or another. But to actually take advantage of these “loopholes,” you have to be very sensitive to the political winds, to carefully calculate the impact of a whole host of factors: who’s speaking, who’s listening, who’s performing, who’s watching, what’s going on on the international stage, what’s happening with the power struggle among competing factions above you, and so on.
You can't be a writer in China without being aware of these realities. Every writer has to figure out how to maintain the integrity of their art without bringing down the wrath of the state. Some writers give up and avoid the treacherous terrain. But others—perhaps the majority—refuse. They become masters at using historical references to allude to the present, at using periphrasis to name that which must not be named, at using metaphors to gesture at the truth, at constructing new languages that give the censors just enough plausible deniability to let through what is otherwise forbidden. Readers, similarly, acquire the skill to read and decode these new languages.
Ken Liu is an author of speculative fiction as well as a translator, lawyer, and programmer. His books include The Wall of Storms and The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories.
Jing Tsu is a professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures and Comparative Literature at Yale University. Her new book on the technological revolution of the Chinese script in the age of the Western alphabet will be published by Riverhead Books in 2019.